Tea flavors and flavored tea… Are these bad? Yes and no. It really depends. And most of all, it depends on the quality of the tea base and the flavoring agents.
There are many possible reasons for the existence of that “natural” flavor in your cup of tea. Sometimes, an overpowering scent only serves to cover the sub-par grade of the tea base. That being said, many high quality, artfully crafted loose leaf flavored tea blends also exist on the market, sporting sustainable ingredients and aromas with aplomb. Tea masters around the world utilize different botanical ingredients like spices, herbs, essential oils, and fragrant blooms to create sophisticated and dimensional tea flavors.
Tea snobs are NOT us!
We love quality loose leaf flavored tea in all its forms and variations. From all-time classics like Earl Grey and Masala Chai to complex exotic tea blends, there is a brew for every taste and every occasion. That explains the enthusiasm with which flavored teas are prepared by tea companies across the globe.
So, how are these magical tea flavors created?
Tea leaves have a natural affinity for surrounding aromas. Traditionally, flavored teas were prepared by mixing the tea leaves with additives such as herbs, spices, flower petals or pieces of dried fruits. These methods are still utilized by the modern tea industry. Alternatively, tea flavoring can be achieved by glazing tea leaves with natural extracts, essential oils or synthesized flavoring agents, both nature-identical and purely artificial (nonexistent in nature). Most of the times, tea is flavored with nature-identical flavorings.
What does “nature-identical flavoring” mean anyway?
Nature-identical flavorings have the same chemical structure as natural scents, even though they were synthesized in a laboratory rather than being derived from plants. Chemically synthesized flavors tend to be more stable, consistent, affordable, and overall very efficient in use. The culprit is not the chemical compound of nature-identical agents (which is the same as natural by definition), but the quantity of those agents exploited in food (and tea) processing. Flavors in such a large amounts as sometimes used in industrial production are simply not found in nature. So that, supermarket “flavored” teas with harsh overwhelming scents might be unnaturally high in nature-identical chemicals.
Some of those controversial chemicals are salicylates. Salicylates, such as methyl salicylate, are generally found in most fruits and many vegetables. Some people are more sensitive to them than others. However, the higher the dose consumed, the more chances to get affected with unpleasant symptoms like headaches and rashes. Note that USFDA does not differentiate between nature-identical and purely artificial flavorings and dubs any flavoring agent that is not derived from natural sources “artificial”.
Often, a tea blend would reflect a combination of different flavoring techniques, further explaining the sheer variety of tea flavors out there.
The art – and the challenge – of commercial tea blending is to get a consistent result with every batch. Think about it. Once the tea master successfully created a new tea blend, he would need to be able to reproduce it, again and again, so the loyal customer would get the same cup of their favorite English Breakfast tea every morning.
Crafting your own unique flavored tea blend. Isn’t that difficult?
With so many natural flavors and fragrances waiting to make their way into your cup of tea, it may be time to take things one step further.
You’ll need loose tea leaves (green tea, black tea, oolong – it’s your choice), fillable tea bags (optional), and of course the oils, spices, dry flowers, pieces of fruits with scents you’d like to infuse into the tea.
Lay the tea leaves out on a clean surface, preferably glass, and spray the flavoring oil on them. Alternatively, you can mix the tea base with dry ingredients such as flower petals (jasmine, lavender, chamomile and rose work great), leaves (mint is a popular choice) or spices (cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, ginger, fennel… the list is endless).
After that, dry tea mixture should be stored in an airtight container for at least a day, for tea leaves to absorb the flavor or scent you’ve chosen. And that’s it. Bag your freshly prepared blend and kick-start your mornings with the perfect homemade brew! This is as natural as it gets.
Now, how do you properly taste tea?
Every cup of tea has a world of aromas, flavors and undertones. For the best experience, brew your tea in fresh water that is heated to the correct temperature. Use an infuser to steep your tea, and add the correct quantity of tea leaves for the amount of water you’re using. Make sure you smell the tea leaves when they’re dry, and then again once you start pouring the tea; wet leaves will smell distinctly different than their dry counterparts. When sipping your tea, take your time so you can experience its initial ‘head notes’, its main ‘body notes’, and its lingering ‘tail notes’. Like wine tasting, tea tasting is a skill that one can perfect with practice, so keep treating yourself to new flavors and blends!